• Patrick Brischetto

Australia needs to be proactive, not reactive, to solve the problem of Indigenous inequality

It was always going to take something shocking and extraordinary to overtake COVID-19 as the top news story worldwide. And the events in Minneapolis on the 25th of May and the subsequent fallout certainly fits that criteria.

George Floyd’s death at the hands, or knee, of a white police officer went viral and caused outrage worldwide, sparking mass protesting and riots in the USA as the Black Lives Matter movement rose back to prominence.

In Australia, the spotlight was on Indigenous deaths in police custody, with posts on being shared widely on social media highlighting the 400 Indigenous deaths in police custody since 1991. This has led to increased criticism levelled towards the police, which was not helped by footage emerging of a police officer using excessive force when arresting an Indigenous teenager. Police Commissioner Mick Fuller’s response that the officer was “having a bad day” was not well received.

In light of this, protests were held in major cities, including Sydney and Melbourne, that were aimed at increasing awareness of the disadvantages faced by Indigenous people, as well as protesting against the deaths in police custody.

Protestors outside Town Hall in Sydney

To truly bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people however we need to do more than just share things on social media or attend protests. As much as these do create an awareness of the issues that face Indigenous people, a Facebook post alone is not going to do much to help an impoverished Indigenous community in the Northern Territory.

Indigenous people make up only 3% of our population yet make up 28% of our prison population. Why are Indigenous incarceration rates so high?

A Senate Committee on Finance and Public Administration suggests the main reason lies in the socio-economic disadvantages faced by many Indigenous communities, especially those in rural and remote areas. These regions tend to have higher rates of substance abuse and worse access to education than in urban areas, which leads to higher rates of crime.

The most effective way to combat this issue in my opinion is education.

The Australian Government, as part of its ‘Closing the Gap’ campaign, aims to bridge the equality gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people has set many targets in terms of education. Whilst numbers of enrolled Indigenous students remain stable, the targets have not been met as of 2018, and many are still below national levels in terms of literacy, numeracy and attendance.

Source: Australian Government 'Closing the Gap' Report

The lack of access to educational opportunities leads to higher unemployment rates, with 18.4% of Indigenous people at working age unemployed as on 2016

With these figures in mind, it’s little wonder that higher rates of Indigenous people are ending up in police custody. And yet in most cases it’s not entirely their fault, they have barely been given a chance when compared to the rest of us who live in large urban areas with ready access to high quality education.

You may be wondering what you can do to resolve this issue. There are many charitable organisations who specifically aim at providing remote Indigenous communities with access to education. The Cathy Freeman Foundation helps provide young Indigenous students with the reading and writing skills required to succeed in schools and encourages individuals to set goals as a means of maintaining school attendance and good behaviour. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation is another organisation that works in over 400 remote communities in delivering books and running programs that help encourage early literacy.

But the need for education doesn’t stop at those remote Indigenous communities. Many non-Indigenous people need to educate themselves on the challenges faced by Indigenous people, not just in education, but in many aspects of their lives. By listening to their stories we can help bridge the inequality gap that still remains between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

There is also a need for police forces in and around Indigenous communities to be better trained and equipped to deal with the unique circumstances and challenges faced by these communities.

As much as the issue of 400 dead in police custody and the continued inequality is in the news now, it will slowly fade out and be consigned to the back of our minds. To truly combat the issues faced by Indigenous communities, Australia needs to be proactive in its response. It needs to be making a more concerted effort at dealing with the health and educational barriers faced by Indigenous people that are leading to higher incarceration rates and deaths in custody.

As a country, we simply cannot wait for the next George Floyd to suddenly realise we need to solve this problem. If we truly want to reduce 400 deaths to zero, we need to take action now.

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